Your Guide to Crab (And How to Cook It)
The poor, misunderstood crab. Its pinching claws and scuttling gait give rise to the description of a grouchy person: crabby. Astrologers characterize those born under the zodiac sign of Cancer (a crab) as prone to hide in their shells.
But food lovers know the truth. Hard on the outside, yet lushly yielding within, crab is the perfect metaphor for hidden opportunity. Its plump, pearlescent and (granted) hard-to-pick-out flesh mingles briny ocean with earthy sweetness.
The world holds approximately 6,800 species of crabs, but blue, Dungeness and Alaskan king prevail on American platters.
These species generate more rivalries than World Series contenders. Blue-crab fans label Dungeness flavor as insipid, Dungeness loyalists lament that blues require too much work for too little meat, while everyone complains king crab is too expensive. Each side proclaims its crab the sweetest.
Blue, Dungeness and king crabs all rate as sustainable “best choices” or “good alternatives” on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch list. And despite crab’s sweetness, a four-ounce portion packs just 120 calories. The fussiness of nutcrackers and teensy forks notwithstanding, the meal is worth it.
“You do have to work it,” says Lori French, president of Central Coast Women for Fisheries, and also a wife, mother and daughter-in-law of Dungeness crab fishermen. “But it’s delicious and lends itself to a slow, conversational dinner.”
Named for their azure-hued claws, blue crabs are native to the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coast, including the famed Chesapeake Bay. Their scientific name—Callinectes sapidus—translates as “savory beautiful swimmer,” which foreshadows their gourmet glory. The largest specimens measure nine inches in diameter.
While their season isn’t sharply defined, blue crabs seem best allied with summer and leisurely eating on ocean-view decks.
That’s exactly how people enjoy them at casual restaurant shacks that dot the Chesapeake Bay: steamed or boiled, piled high on newspaper, thwacked with small mallets, the carcass then probed with tiny forks. Each morsel is dunked in melted butter spiked with a squeeze of lemon. Mess ensues. Blue-crab cookery often involves Old Bay Seasoning, a blend that includes dry mustard, red-pepper flakes, nutmeg, cardamom and more. It’s the magic potion of Chesapeake Bay kitchens.
About 25 times in their lives, blue crabs shed their hard exoskeletons and gradually expand to larger proportions. Within two to four days, their exterior stiffens to fit their new size. They’re particularly sought after in this soft-shell state, and it’s the only time female crabs mate.
Season: Crabbing takes place year-round in the Gulf of Mexico. In the Chesapeake Bay, the season runs from April to mid-December. “But fall is best—they’re big and meaty,” says Candy Thomson of the Maryland Natural Resources Police. Soft shells come to market from May to Labor Day.
Courtesy Fisherman’s Corner Restaurant, Tangier Island, Virginia
One of the most remote locales in the Lower 48, Tangier Island pokes from the middle of Chesapeake Bay, rising barely four feet above sea level. The island loses an estimated 15 feet of shore annually due to encroaching seas.
Tangier was settled by English families from Cornwall and Devon in the 17th century. That heritage shows in the Colonial-era dialect still spoken by their descendants. Residents earn livings as crab and oyster fishermen, called “watermen” hereabouts.
Irene Eskridge, co-owner of Fisherman’s Corner, shares a tip on how to make these crab cakes: “They won’t fall apart if you make them up and put in the refrigerator a day before.”
- 4 slices white bread, crusts removed
- 3 heaping tablespoons mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon Old Bay Seasoning
- 1 teaspoon mustard
- 1 teaspoon Worcestershire Sauce
- Dash of hot sauce
- 1 pound picked blue crabmeat
- ¼ cup cooking oil, plus more, if needed
- Cocktail sauce or mayonnaise and lemon wedges, for serving
Place bread in bowl of food processor. Pulse until finely chopped. Set aside.
Combine next eight items in mixing bowl.
In separate bowl, fold together crabmeat and breadcrumbs. Gently mix in mayonnaise mixture. Form into patties, about ½ cup each.
Heat ¼ cup oil in large nonstick frying pan over medium heat. Fry in batches, adding oil as needed and flipping once, until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side. Eskridge recommends serving them with cocktail sauce, but mayonnaise and a squeeze of lemon are also delicious. Serves 4–6.
You can’t on Tangier—no alcohol is sold on the island. For mainlanders, we recommend Veritas 2014 Viognier from Monticello ($25, 87 points), Virginia, where Viognier is considered a signature white-wine grape. Round and full in texture, it stands up to the richness of the crab and the umami from the Worcestershire, while lush tropical-fruit flavors complement the layered tones of the dish. Hints of citrus and acidity in the wine also emphasize the dish’s fresh ingredients.
Burlier than their blue-crab cousins, Dungeness crabs can tip the scales at more than four pounds. Even more important to impatient diners: Dungeness crabs carry about 25 percent of their weight as meat, compared with 15 percent for blues.
Found along the west coast of North America, from Alaska to Santa Barbara, California, Dungeness crabs get their name from a fishing village on Washington’s Strait of Juan de Fuca (the community derives its moniker from a headland in England).
Each part of the crab delivers a different taste profile and texture, says Andrew Truong, co-chef and co-owner of Michelin-starred Terrapin Creek restaurant in Bodega Bay, an epicenter for California’s Dungeness fishing fleet.
“Body meat is flakier and more buttery,” he says. “The legs have a cleaner, more delicate taste.”
There’s also a difference in price. Crab-leg meat can cost about $100 per pound, compared with $30 per pound for a mix of legs, body and claws.
Dungeness recipes are often influenced by the sizeable Asian (and crab-craving) communities along the West Coast. Dishes might be stir-fried, incorporating fermented black-bean sauce, or ginger and scallions. But fresh Dungeness don’t require fuss.
“My favorite way to eat them is to boil them up, crack them and eat them,” says French. “I don’t use butter or anything.”
Season: Dungeness crabs are available much of the year, thanks to different seasons in California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska.
Courtesy Andrew Truong and Liya Lin, Terrapin Creek, Bodega Bay, California
After working at some of San Francisco’s top restaurants, Andrew Truong and his wife, Liya Lin, sought to escape the fast lane. A glance through “for sale” ads led them to a tiny fishing village with a 40-seat restaurant they could afford and that didn’t need much renovation. Terrapin Creek opened in 2008. It won its Michelin star in 2012, and it has retained that designation ever since. Spotlighting crab landed at docks just downhill from the restaurant, this dish is like a deconstructed crab cake, says Truong. “It’s got buttery béchamel sauce, a dash of lemon acidity, pieces of crab, some breadcrumbs on top—like a crab cake, but richer and creamier.”
- 2 Dungeness crabs (or 14–16 ounces Dungeness crabmeat)
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 tablespoons lemon juice
- ¼ teaspoon paprika
- 1 shallot, finely chopped
- 1 celery stalk, finely chopped
- 1 scallion, sliced or finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon olive oil or butter
- 1 cup toasted breadcrumbs
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
If using fresh crab: Boil very large pot of water. Add crabs. Set timer for 16–18 minutes. When water returns to boil, cover pot and turn off burner. Cook until timer goes off. Remove crabs from pot and cool. Pick crabmeat.
To make béchamel: In separate saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Whisk in flour. Cook 3–5 minutes, stirring constantly. Add milk and salt. Cook 5 minutes. Whisk in lemon juice and paprika. Set aside.
In frying pan, sauté shallot, celery and scallion with olive oil or butter until soft. Add ½ cup water and béchamel sauce to vegetable mixture, and stir to combine. When sauce boils, add crabmeat and cook until just warm.
Serve crab ragout in shallow bowls, sprinkled with breadcrumbs and chopped parsley. Serves 4–6.
Truong suggests Marimar Estate’s 2014 Don Miguel Vineyard Albariño ($32, 92 points), from California’s Russian River Valley. “The Albariño cuts the richness of the ragout, yet the crab dish does not interfere with any of the citrus and mineral characteristics of the wine.”
These stars of Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel are a source of peril. Fishing boats and their crews head into frigid seas off Alaska and its Aleutian Islands in late fall and winter to face waves that can tower more than 40 feet. Adding to the challenge, king crabs are bottom- dwellers that lurk at depths of 400 feet.
King crabs can weigh more than 20 pounds with a leg span of six feet. The family comes in a rainbow of colors that include red, blue and golden. The most coveted for consumption is red crab, which is found in the Bering Sea and Norton Sound. Generally, only their sea-spidery legs are sold and eaten. When buying, look for crab that’s been certified, which means that it comes from a sustainably managed fishery.
As for taste, “The king has longer muscle strands, so it has more of a bite and there’s a brininess to them,” says Seattle chef/restaurateur Tom Douglas. “It’s almost always chunkier—a single leg can weigh a pound.”
Almost all king crabs you encounter have been cooked and flash-frozen, which means cooking begins with thoughtful thawing. Leave them in the refrigerator overnight to defrost, and then don’t overheat.
“Don’t take it over 105 degrees,” says Douglas. “You’ll bleed all the moisture out of it.”
Season: King-crab fishing usually takes place between October and January. Seasons can last less than four weeks. However, since most king crab sold in the U.S. has been previously frozen, there’s a year-round supply.
Courtesy Tom Douglas, owner, Tom Douglas Restaurants, Seattle
Tom Douglas is a true crab whisperer. He grew up in Delaware feasting on blue crab and now lives in Seattle, the shrine of Dungeness, “… king and opilio, and you-name-it kinds of crab,” he says. A three-time James Beard Award winner, the chef/impresario operates 18 restaurants in Seattle that include Dahlia Lounge, Palace Kitchen and Etta’s. For this recipe, “look for the fullest or heaviest king crab legs you can find,” says Douglas. Serve with Japanese short-grain rice. “Fragrant with spices, it’s perfect for soaking up the complex, well-balanced sauce with its bright flavors, sweetness and gentle spiciness.”
- 3 tablespoons peanut oil
- 2 teaspoons finely minced lemongrass (tender white part only)
- 2 teaspoons seeded, minced Poblano pepper
- 2 teaspoons minced shallot
- 2 teaspoons grated ginger
- 1 teaspoon minced garlic
- 1 cup chicken stock
- 5 teaspoons rice-wine vinegar
- 5 teaspoons soy sauce
- 2½ teaspoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons Chinese chili paste with garlic
- 1 teaspoon coarsely chopped Chinese fermented black beans
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 2 pounds king crab legs, cut into 2 inch segments, left in the shell
- ¼ cup sake
- Pea shoots, for garnish
- Julienned scallions, for garnish
- Toasted black and white sesame seeds, for garnish
- Lime wedges, for garnish
Heat 1 tablespoon peanut oil in small saucepan over medium-high heat. Cook lemongrass, pepper, shallot, ginger and garlic. Stir until soft, about 2 minutes. Add chicken stock, vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, chili paste and black beans. Simmer 5 minutes. Dissolve cornstarch in 1 teaspoon cold water. Add to mixture. Simmer, stirring frequently, for 2 minutes. Set aside. This can be done a few days ahead. Refrigerate sauce and reheat when ready to use.
Heat remaining 2 tablespoons peanut oil in wok or large skillet over high heat until almost smoking. Toss in crab pieces, add saké, cover and steam 2–3 minutes. Add lemongrass sauce and simmer until crab is heated through and sauce thickens to desired consistency, 1–2 minutes.
Arrange crab on platter, or divide between 2 plates. Pour sauce over and around crab. Garnish with pea shoots, scallions, sesame seeds and lime wedges. Serve with steamed rice. Serves 2.
“Crab meat has natural sweetness layered with a briny, savory character,” says David Rosenthal, white winemaker for Chateau Ste. Michelle, which frequently partners with Tom Douglas restaurants. “Those flavors play perfectly with the fruity sweetness and savory minerality of the 2015 Eroica Riesling (Columbia Valley). The bright acidity of Eroica keeps this dish light, and the off-dry style balances the ginger and Poblano spice profile.”
These terms will help you buy crab in a pinch.
Fresh/Fresh Cooked: People near the coasts can buy whole crab live or freshly cooked from quality vendors. Fresh or thawed crab has only a two-day shelf life. Ask the fishmonger for a small taste or smell to assure freshness.
Lump crab: This refers to shelled blue-crab meat. “Jumbo Lump” is the highest grade—big, white nuggets of body meat. “Backfin” contains lump and some broken body meat, while “claw” meat is darker in color and grainier.
Frozen: Properly handled, frozen can be lush, briny and delicious. “Never force-thaw it under water,” says Tom Douglas. “You end up with stringy, horrible meat, and you wash out the ocean flavor.”
Pasteurized: This can last six to 12 months when properly refrigerated. If the ingredient list includes preservatives, serve it cold. As soon as it gets heated, all the moisture will leech out of it.
Canned: “I’m not sure what that crab is for,” says Douglas of the finely minced product. “But you’ll be sorely disappointed if you try to make crab cakes out of it.”
- 1Blue Crab: The Shore Thing
- 2Uncle Frank’s Crab Cakes
- 3Dungeness Crab: Best of the West Coast
- 4Dungeness Crabmeat Ragout
- 5King Crabs: Captains of the North
- 6Wok-Fried King Crab with Lemongrass and Ginger
- 7Know Your Crab